When I was in graduate school, writing my thesis, (which ultimately became a memoir, LIFT) I found myself stuck. I don’t just mean that I was having a few bad weeks, stuck. I mean I seriously didn’t know what to write anymore or if I even should write any more.
I had a meticulous outline of the book. It was based on my first season flying a peregrine falcon, which I had thoroughly journaled online and in private. So I had plenty of material. I knew I wanted to write a story about falconry that drew the sort of parallels that A River Runs Through It drew from fly fishing. So I knew what the message was. I was halfway through the book and I suddenly just didn’t have the words anymore.
I had written three books before this, a romance novel and two reference books. So I knew I could finish a book. I knew how to start, follow an outline, work my way through the middle, and write the ending. I understood how books were written. Until I didn’t.
In desperation, I finally met with my thesis advisor and tried to explain my predicament. I started the conversation by trying to logic my way around my problem. I swore I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I suggested I was just being lazy.
My thesis advisor, Chris Abani sat in front of me, a half smile on face, nodding, but saying nothing. He simply gestured for me to continue.
I wondered if I should drink less tequila …or maybe more. I thought maybe I should sit in front of my computer and quit flying my falcon until I finally started writing. Any writing would be better than no writing. How hard was it just to write something? Anything?
Now Chris looked sympathetic and clasped his hands like a priest taking confession, but he still said nothing. He just waited.
I finally cracked. “I can’t do this”, I sobbed. “I just don’t have the words. I don’t know what the words are… Where did the words go?!”
Chris smiled, shook his head and finally began speaking. Grabbing a notebook, he ripped out a sheet of paper and scribbled on it like it was prescription. “I want you to go see, Juan Felipe,” he said. “Juan Felipe will fix you right up.”
I took the piece of paper, but just stared at him. Juan Felipe Herrera was the poetry professor. My thesis advisor was prescribing… poetry??
I’m a horrible poet. The last poem I remember writing went something like this:
Once I had a kitten
He was small as a mitten
I couldn’t think of a name
So I called him cat.
Cat in the hat, my mother called him
Pain in the neck my father called him
He begged for milk
He begged for food
So my brother called him no good…
Okay, I wrote that in third grade, but you get the idea. This was not going to help me, but Chris shooed me out of the office before I could argue and I stood perplexed with Juan Felipe’s name in my hand. (Which I have no idea why I needed, because I knew Juan Felipe and he was just done the hall…)
Dutifully, though, I spoke with Juan Felipe who listened to me very closely, as if some single word in my story might reveal the solution to this quandary. Then he suddenly raised his hands as if the answer was obvious. “Bring me 12 photos of hunting with your falcon,” he said. “They can be on the way to hunt, in the field, on the way back, whatever. Just bring me twelve.”
I was still dubious, but I spent a week looking through photos and trying to choose the right ones. I didn’t know what Juan Felipe was going to make me do with them, but I’d be saddled with my choices. So I considered carefully. And as I did I thought about the day each of them was taken. There were good days, bad days, surprising days, and few funny ones. It was harder to choose than I thought.
When I brought selection of photos to Juan Felipe, he sifted through them quickly, as if they were from a tarot deck and he was picking the appropriate cards, sorting out six.
“Write a poem about each of these,” he said.
I started to protest, but one of the photos caught my eye. It was familiar the candy-colored sunrise over the clouded desert on a drive out to hawk at dawn. I found myself wondering what the right word for that color was. It reminded me of cherry 7-Up. Except that wasn’t quite right either.
So I took back my photos and wrote my poems. They weren’t great, but at least there was no rhyming of mittens and kittens. And after I wrote them, my mind unlocked. I never did come up with quite the right word for the sunrise, but there isn’t one. What I did was come back to my memoir with a fervor and passion for tiny details. And the details led me back into the story.
And Juan Felipe, by the way, well, he became the United States Poet Laureate in 2015, ten years later.
Poetry did so well for me that I took a couple classes. I didn’t get much better. Then I took undergraduate photography so I could learn to use the darkroom. I was okay. I also took screenwriting. I was phenomenally bad.
All of these things, however, brought me back to my own art fresh and at a different angle. Poetry, as horrible at it as I am, saved my thesis.
Adam Grant, in his new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, says that a study by 15 researchers at Michigan State University compared every Nobel Prize scientist with the typical scientists of their era to search for delineating differences. What they found was that both groups obtained deep expertise in their fields, but the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than their counterparts. There were painters, sculptors, glass-blowers, fiction writers, amateur actors, and musicians. Another study showed similar results for entrepreneurs and CEOs. And you know what? I bet a lot of them were doing art badly, just like me.
And it makes me wonder why any of us set aside hobbies that make us curious. Why is everyone waiting to set up their woodshop and start tinkering until after they retire? Why can’t we take a stab at sculpting until we have more time and money? Why, don’t we make bad art when it could make us better at the thing we are best at doing?
While I know that pursuing new avenues of art is also a wonderful form of procrastination, (YAY! PROCRASTINATION!) I also know that every time I try to edit this novel I’m wrapping up, my gut knots up. The words aren’t right and the right ones are there. So perhaps my new found fondness for coloring anything I can find with watercolor pencils might save it. Maybe I’ll even figure out that word for the particular color of my desert sunrise.
I believe in drawing lopsided birds, writing bad songs, destroying perfectly good recipes, and crafting falconry hoods that are useless because they don’t fit.
I believe in making bad art. Maybe we all should.
I am so very grateful for those of you who have been reading along faithfully and helping me with this journey to put into words the things that lift us, crash us, and galvanize us. Many of you have written to share your own journey and have thanked me, which means so much to me. But you probably don’t realize how incredibly impactful you have been ME.
So I made you a little something.
Perhaps doing some out-of-the-box art would be good for you too! Maybe coloring some birds?
I’ve put together three sets of five gray-scale coloring pages of my avian photographs: Lyrical, Playful, and Fierce. I carefully curated them based on what I thought would create the best shading for coloring and meticulously worked with the black & white channels in Photoshop to get the best output.
This is what my first attempt at coloring one of photographs looked like:
You can find the pages here on Etsy, where each set is $.99 OR just send me a quick email and I’ll send you the PDFs for free.
Print. Color. Relax. Imagine… I only ask that you share any of your favorite creations so I can enjoy them and get some inspiration from you as well!!
—If you want printed packets, then you’ll have to wait just a bit. I’m still experimenting to find the best and most economical paper, which will work across a variety of art mediums. (I’ve been using watercolor pencils, but the sky is the limit…) But these are coming too.
In the meantime, go make bad art!! Who knows? Maybe it might turn out to be amazing art or even better, give you a fresh take on your own professional or artist discipline. What could it hurt?